19 July 2008

At the movies... Mamma Mia!

The plot is simultaneously simple ("who is the father of the bride?") and complex (three different trios of people, mistaken identities, subterfuge, possible divine intervention), pulling equal amounts of inspiration from dinner theatre revue and Greek tragedy. Sophie (Amanda Seyfried, best known as the sweetly dim Karen in Mean Girls) is getting married at the hotel her mother Donna (Meryl Streep, who seems to be having an insane amount of fun) runs on a picturesque Greek island. Having been raised without knowing the identity of her father, our plucky heroine (thanks to a purloined diary) has narrowed the object of her paternity down to one of three men: architect Sam (Pierce Brosnan), adventurer Bill (Stellan Skarsgard), and banker Harry (Colin Firth), each of whom she has invited to the wedding. It's both flimsy and overwrought, but it's as close to an immovable force of effervescence and poppy regret as one could hope for.

Mamma Mia! is certainly the most democratic of big screen musicals. One of the aspects of last year's similar jukebox musical Across The Universe that torpedoed its possible success was how it kept the Beatles' songs at a distance from the audience, tying them to sweeping social movements and operatic character arcs that at no point allowed the audience to identify with what Lennon and McCartney were saying (notable exception: "I Wanna Hold Your Hand"). In direct opposition to Julie Taymor's high-minded, high-concept approach to the Beatles, director Phyllida Lloyd approaches the Abba catalog with the gusto of a drunken karaoke night with friends and lovers past and present, and it works like gangbusters. There's very little art to be had here, other than Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus' immortal and majestic pop songs (and let's not forget Stig Anderson, who helped out on "Honey Honey," "SOS," "Mamma Mia," and "Dancing Queen"), and the end result is a film that is lovable in its bright and frothy madness. When Christine Baranksi and Julie Walters show up as Streep's lifelong friends/band members/Greek chorus, the film has committed to a sensibility that feels like a combination family reunion/drag show fuelled by heartfelt Swedish pop and vats of stout Greek liquor.

The only serious misstep carried over from the stage show involves taking "When All Is Said and Done" (which may very well be the best pop song ever written about divorce) and giving it to Pierce Brosnan (who gives it his all but really has no business singing in public) as a happy wedding song, which runs counter to the heart of the song. But even that can be forgiven, such is the film's manic zeal and festive atmosphere.

But jettisoning "Under Attack" from the film entirely is a catastrophic mistake, and it manages to undo one of the sly achievements of the stage show, which is exposing audiences to some of Abba's lesser-known material- just witness Streep and Seyfried wringing every somber moment out of the masterful "Slipping Through My Fingers," and you'll get a feel for how powerful Andersson and Ulvaeus' work can be. Even as it is, there's a lot of pleasure and daffy fun to be had here, and I find myself gleefully recommending the film with a big, slackjawed grin on my face. It's not for everyone, but a timeless melody and Oscar winners shaking it to the hits is entertainment money well-spent.

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